Listed and lost: Cultural World Heritage sites in the UK

This summer, the UK gained a new World Heritage site in the form of the Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales, but also saw Liverpool demoted from this status. CA considers these recent changes, and takes a tour of other UNESCO-protected sites within the UK.


On 21 July this year, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee met virtually to vote on the future of one of the more than 1,100 sites inscribed on their World Heritage List. Voting was split, but the decision was clear, with 13 to five members ruling that Liverpool should be struck from the register. It was a dramatic step. To-date, only two other sites have been similarly deleted: Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (inscribed in 1994, and removed in 2007 after the government reduced its area by 90%), and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany (inscribed in 2004, removed in 2009 following the construction of a four-lane bridge spanning the valley close to Dresden’s historic city centre). Liverpool’s removal from the List was similarly linked to changes to the protected area that the Committee considered to be ‘detrimental to the site’s authenticity and integrity’.

Liverpool’s ‘Three Graces’: the Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building, and Port of Liverpool Building. These striking waterfront structures stand on the Pier Head, part of what was – until this summer – a World Heritage site. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Also like Dresden, Liverpool’s World Heritage status dates back to 2004. The protected area, known as ‘Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City’, spanned six different locations in the city centre, each reflecting different aspects of Liverpool’s global maritime past, including its cultural influence and involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and international migration. Preserving the largest and most complete system of historic docks anywhere in the world, as well as a wealth of distinctive architecture from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, these locations included the Pier Head, whose famous skyline is dominated by the ‘Three Graces’ (the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building); the Albert Dock, opened by the eponymous Prince Consort in 1846 and the site of many innovations in docking technology, as well as monumental waterside warehouses; and the interlinked wet docks and warehouses of the Stanley Dock Conservation Area. There was also the ‘Commercial District’ of Castle Street, where grand Georgian and Victorian buildings stand on medieval streets; the ‘Cultural Quarter’ of William Brown Street, with its ornate civic buildings; and the ‘Merchants’ Quarter’ of Lower Duke Street, a cosmopolitan collection of houses and warehouses built to serve the Old Dock that opened in 1715. Surrounding all of this was a buffer zone including Georgian terraces, important views, and Liverpool’s Chinatown, home to one of the oldest Chinese communities in Europe.

Development disputes

The first rumblings of trouble came when the protected area was only a few years old. World Heritage sites can be cultural (e.g. a ruin, building, or city), natural (e.g. a unique landmark or a landscape), or a mixture of the two, but in order to be selected any proposed location has to meet strict criteria to be considered of ‘outstanding value to humanity’. If those characteristics later become eroded, sites can be put on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger or even lose their status. In Liverpool, this began in 2010 with the Liverpool Waters development, which proposed the construction of several skyscrapers on the city’s waterfront near the Pier Head. Balancing the need for growth and conservation in historic cities can be a delicate task, but when planning permission for the project was granted by Liverpool City Council in 2012, UNESCO placed the city on their ‘in danger’ watchlist, warning of a ‘serious loss of historical authenticity’ if the construction proceeded as planned.

The development did go ahead, and was followed by further constructions both within the protected area and the surrounding buffer zone – including, in February 2021, Everton FC’s new stadium within Bramley-Moore Dock, the northernmost of the docks within the World Heritage site. It was this latter development that provided a catalyst for UNESCO to act, and five months later, at the 44th annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee, it was decided to revoke the site’s status, citing ‘irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property’.

Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City is not the only UK World Heritage site to have had its status threatened by planned developments. At the same session that saw Liverpool deleted from UNESCO’s register, the Committee warned that they would have to consider whether to add Stonehenge to their ‘in danger’ list at next year’s meeting, should a tunnel that was slated to replace the A303 – a busy road passing close to the Wiltshire monument – be constructed in its proposed form. Stonehenge is among the UK’s oldest World Heritage sites – not only in a literal sense, but ‘Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites’ was also one of the first places in the UK to attain this status, inscribed in 1986.

Plans for a two-mile road tunnel close to Stonehenge led to UNESCO threatening to place the Wiltshire monument on its ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list. Photo: C Hilts.

The construction of a two-mile road tunnel within the World Heritage site, removing much of the A303 from the Stonehenge landscape, was approved by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in November 2020, to mixed response from the heritage community. English Heritage, Historic England, and the National Trust had welcomed the initial announcement of the tunnel scheme in 2014, issuing a joint statement calling it a ‘momentous decision’, and English Heritage described the government’s go-ahead in 2020 as ‘a landmark day for Stonehenge… which finally makes good on a decades-long aspiration to do justice to the ancient stones and the prehistoric landscape in which they stand.’

UNESCO was less enthusiastic, however, expressing concern about the short length of the tunnel and its likely impact on the archaeological environment, while a number of archaeologists working within the Stonehenge landscape also voiced their dismay. One of these was Professor David Jacques, who has been excavating a significant Mesolithic occupation site at Blick Mead, a mile from Stonehenge and within the World Heritage Site, since 2005 (see CA 271, 293, 324, and 325). The site lies adjacent to the A303, and David and his team feared the likely impact of the works on the local water table, and on the organic remains preserved at Blick Mead. The campaign group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site launched a legal challenge which culminated in a judicial review, and in July, days after UNESCO’s statement about reconsidering the World Heritage site’s status, the High Court judge ruled that Grant Shapps’ decision to proceed with the tunnel had been ‘unlawful’ for not considering its impact on each individual heritage asset within the site, and for failing to consider alternative schemes.

A ‘disappointed’ Historic England spokesperson called the ruling ‘a missed opportunity to remove the intrusive sight and sound of traffic past the iconic monument and to reunite the remarkable Stonehenge landscape, which has been severed in two by the busy A303 trunk road for decades.’ David Jacques, meanwhile, hailed the outcome as ‘amazing’ and ‘refreshing’, while acknowledging the benefits of removing the A303 from the World Heritage Site. ‘They could all be realised if the government had been prepared to consider the alternatives of either a longer tunnel (starting and ending outside the WHS and disturbing nothing within it), or a diversion of the A303 to the south,’ he said. ‘Consideration could then be seriously given to turning the World Heritage Site into a National Park of Prehistory.’

World Heritage in the UK

This summer’s UNESCO meeting was not all bad news for the UK: the Committee also voted to inscribe a new World Heritage site from within these shores, the Slate Landscape of Northwest Walese, while the city of Bath, listed in its own right since 1987 thanks to its combination of well-preserved Roman archaeology and distinctive neo-classical Georgian architecture, has now been added to a new transnational World Heritage site, the Great Spa Towns of Europe, which encompasses 11 sites in Austria, Belgium, Czechia, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK.

This brings the total of World Heritage sites in the UK and its territories to 33, of which 28 are examples of cultural heritage, four natural, and one (St Kilda) a mixed site combining both categories – previously the last cultural site from these shores to be inscribed was the leading radio astronomy observatory at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire (see CA 354). As might be inferred from a list that includes both Stonehenge and a modern scientific facility, the UK cultural inscriptions are an eclectic selection. They are scattered widely across England, Scotland, and Wales (Northern Ireland has no UNESCO-registered cultural sites, but is home the Giant’s Causeway, a natural WHS), as well as two sites in British Overseas Territories: traces of Neanderthal activity at the Gorham’s Cave Complex in Gibraltar, and the 17th-century settlement of St George’s Town in Bermuda. Within the British mainland, UNESCO-recognised sites range from very ancient archaeology like the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (a monumental complex including Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stenness Stones, and Maeshowe chambered tomb) to medieval fortifications such as the Tower of London and Durham Castle. This latter site is paired on the register with Durham Cathedral, and ecclesiastical icons are also in abundance, encompassing landmarks from Westminster Abbey and the ruins of Fountains Abbey to Canterbury Cathedral.

Ancient and modern: the UK’s World Heritage sites range from Neolithic monuments such as the c.4,500-year-old Ring of Brodgar (above), part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, to Jodrell Bank Observatory, including its famous Lovell Telescope (below). Photo: Steve Keiretsu/Mike Peel.
Photo: Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester

Some sites are listed for their extraordinary architecture, such as Maritime Greenwich and Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, while others are recognised as outstanding examples of civil engineering ingenuity – the UK register includes two bridges (the Forth Bridge, linking Fife and Edinburgh, and Ironbridge in Shropshire) and a 19th-century navigable aqueduct (Pontcysyllte, in the Vale of Llangollen). On that theme, perhaps surprisingly, industrial sites are far more plentiful than prehistoric ones, making up around a fifth of the inscriptions, and combining vast mining landscapes and villages once inhabited by communities of mill-workers.

The fact that Bath has now been included in a transnational inscription brings a neat circularity to our exploration of UK World Heritage sites. Hadrian’s Wall was another of the first batch of UK sites to be listed in 1986, but this entry later grew to a multinational inscription also taking in the Roman frontier fortifications in Germany (in 2005), the Antonine Wall in Scotland (in 2008) and, as of this summer, the western section of the Danube Limes traversing Austria, Germany, and Slovakia.

Cultural criteria

Any potential Cultural World Heritage Site has to fulfil one or more of the following six criteria to be accepted by UNESCO:

1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
2. To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
3. To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared
4. To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage or stages in human history
5. To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change
6. To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

Cultural World Heritage sites in the UK and British Overseas Territories


Blenheim Palace (1987)
Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church (1988)
City of Bath (1987)
Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (2006)
Derwent Valley Mills (2001)
Durham Castle and Cathedral (1986)
Ironbridge Gorge (1986)
Jodrell Bank Observatory (2019)
Maritime Greenwich (1997)
Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including St Margaret’s Church (1987)
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2003)
Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites (1986)
Studley Royal Park including the Ruins of Fountains Abbey (1986)
The English Lake District (2017)
Tower of London (1988)


Heart of Neolithic Orkney (1999)
New Lanark (2001)
Old and New Towns of Edinburgh (1995)
Saltaire (2001)
The Forth Bridge (2015)
St Kilda (1986, 2004, 2005) – mixed cultural/natural WHS


Blaenavon Industrial Landscape (2000)
Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd (1986)
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal (2009)
The Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales (2021)
British Overseas Territories
Gorham’s Cave Complex, Gibraltar (2016)
Historic Town of St George and Related Fortifications, Bermuda (2000)

Transnational sites

Frontiers of the Roman Empire (Hadrian’s Wall, 1987; German Limes, 2005; Antonine Wall, 2008; Danube Limes, 2021)
The Great Spa Towns of Europe (2021)